Monday, May 9, 2016

Shedding Tears (Sometimes) for Teardowns

From Dave Brigham:

Is the word "teardown" in your town's lexicon? No? Well, then let me define it for you: "the process of buying an older, sometimes rundown house, knocking it flat to the ground and building an often oversized house in its place." What ever happened to renovation? My wife and I watch TV shows all the time where builders buy a house, take it down to the studs and turn it into a beautiful new place without the need to rip up a piece of a neighborhood's history.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I lived in a future teardown in Newton, Mass., several years ago. Called La Casita Flatita (roughly translated as "the little flat house") by our landlord, a 70-something Italian-American guy who grew up in the house, the place was small, of course, but it was cute.

Our landlord's father built the house on a decent-sized lot that was cursed by a giant rock ledge that extended into the basement. He chipped away at the stone in there, our landlord said, to make the basement bigger. In the furthest part of the basement, where you had to duck your head, there was an old wine barrel. Our landlord's father grew his own grapes and made his own vino.

That's a great piece of history that I'll never forget. My wife, Beth, and I lived in the house for about two and a half years until our landlord told us he was going to put his childhood home on the market. Beth and I went back and forth about whether to make an offer. There were only two bedrooms and one bathroom, but it was on a quiet street that was walking distance to Newton Center, where there were stores, restaurants, banks and a trolley line. We were also right around the corner from two malls.

We decided to go for it, but our landlord rejected our offer. We decided to look elsewhere, and found a place not too far away, in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.

We were sad to find out a few months later that the house had been sold to a developer, for not much more than we had offered. Before long, the house was leveled, the ledge blown up and two townhouses went up in its place. La Casita Flatita was gone, and so was its history.

Developers in Newton and surrounding towns have been mad for teardowns for years. I understand the economics: buy an out-of-fashion Cape or ranch house for $600,00-$700,000 (real estate around here is kinda crazy)....

...bulldoze the offending property and replace it with a much larger house that will sell for $1 million or more.***

Often times, the smaller homes are replaced with two or even three town houses, because the lots are decent sized and the zoning laws allow for this. Read this February 2015 Boston Globe Magazine article for more on teardowns in Newton and surrounding communities.

Also see our March 18, 2011, post, "Anatomy of a Teardown."

I'm not saying every old Cape, ranch or bungalow needs to be saved. I know that some places are simply beyond restoration, although Nicole Curtis might beg to differ with me on that. But when developers scoop up a house, erase the memories and history of that place, erect a bland structure with little architectural detail or sense of scale, and sell it to people who want a move-in ready home rather than being willing to put a bit of themselves into a place, it can be easy for neighbors to take offense.

The house at the top of this post was right around the corner from mine until about a year and a half ago. A nondescript brick ranch house, it was leveled, with the exception of one wall, and a new, multi-gabled house went up in its place. Eventually that one wall was torn down -- I imagine this had something to do with zoning/teardown regulations in Newton.

Within the last year or so, several other houses in the vicinity have been knocked down, along with dozens across the city of Newton.

The house that once stood here was featured in a John Travolta movie, "The Forger." Here's a brief article about the shoot, featuring a photo of the place.

Any smart developer/realtor could have squeezed some extra cash out of a potential buyer if they mentioned this fact. But no, somebody tore the damn thing down and put up a house that wasn't in a movie, and most likely won't ever be.

The place below was built in 1920, and purchased for $500,000 in May of this year.

When I saw this piece of heavy machinery parked in the yard, I knew the house's days were limited, despite my wife's insistence that somebody might just be planning a renovation.

The house was emptied first, and the prior owner's belongings were plowed into a big, dirty mess.

Still, amid the rubble there was life, personality, a sense of who the former owner was.

In November 2014, the Newton Board of Aldermen voted to reject a proposed moratorium on teardowns involving homes greater than 120% of the original structure’s floor area.

The primary argument against teardowns comes down to economics: by taking potential starter homes (albeit fairly expensive ones compared to towns a bit further out from Boston) off the market, these developers are catering to a certain class of folks -- rich ones.

As a liberal and someone who loves old homes (mine is from the early '20s), I agree with these arguments against allowing one home to be demolished and replaced with a McMansion or two or more expensive townhouses. At the same time, I don't think you can legislate against developers trying to maximize their profits. I hope there's a meeting place for the two sides in this argument, but rezoning neighborhoods and reworking the details of a replacement house's footprint are big issues that few in Newton's government want to take on.

***These houses are both currently in Newton's Oak Park neighborhood; I offer these photos as an example of the types of houses being torn down, and what replaces them.

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